Church fathers described Jesus as “our god” but it is translated “our God.”

Introduction

A number of the Christian writers of the first 300 years referred to Jesus as “our God.”  Trinitarian apologists use such phrases to argue that the church fathers, even before Nicene, believed that Jesus is God.  To prevent a repetition of the explanation of this practice, this article focuses on this topic.

This article focuses specifically on the early church fathers, but various other articles are available on this site that discuss the references to Jesus as God in the New Testament, including, Is Jesus called God?, Romans 9:5, Hebrews 1:8, John 1:1, John 1:18, John 20:28, and Is Jesus called God in John?       

Jesus is our God

IGNATIUS

Ignatius of Antioch describes the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God.”

Irenaeus, similarly, referred to Christ Jesus as “our God.”  But he similarly also wrote:

We received the faith in “One God, the Father Almighty.”

Lord God of Abraham … who art the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God … who rulest over all, who art the only and the true God, above whom there is none other God (Against Heresies 3.6.4)

He, the Father, is the only God and Lord, who alone is God and ruler of all… (Against Heresies 3.9.1)

This confusion does not exist in the original text but is caused by the translations.  To explain:

The modern word “God”

In modern English, we use the word “God” to identify one specific being.  It functions as a proper name for the Almighty; the One who exists without Cause.

The ancient word “god”

The ancient languages did not have the modern differentiation between lower and upper case letters.  Consequently, they did not have a word that is equivalent to the modern word “God.”  They only had words (theos in Greek) that are equivalent to our word “god.” The word “god” does not identify one specific being, but a category of beings. 

For example, in the Graeco-Roman world, they had a plethora of gods. Even the emperors were called as gods.  Paul confirmed, “indeed there are many gods and many lords” (1 Cor. 8:5).  The Christian God was regarded as one of the gods.

Describes many different beings

Words such as theos, therefore, had a much broader meaning than the modern word “God.”  For example, the following are called “god” in the Bible:

Moses at the burning bush

● Moses (Exodus 7.1),
● Angels (Psalm 8.5; cf. Hebrews 2.7),
● The divine council (Psalm 82.1, 6),
● Israel’s judges (Exodus 21.6, 22.8),
● The Davidic king (Psalm 45.6),
● Appetite (Philippians 3.19),
● Those who receive the word of God (John 10.34-35), and
● Satan (2 Corinthians 4.4).

Outside the Bible, the ancients also applied theos and similar words to exalted people and to the pagan gods, such as Zeus, the god of the sky, Apollo, god of the sun, Hermes, god of the roadways, and Hades, the god of the underworld. 

Theos in the Bible

Since such ancient words, such as those, were used to refer to a wide variety of beings, the writers of the New Testament very frequently added the definite article (the – ho in Greek) to indicate that the only true God is intended.  Sometimes they described Him as “the true god” or “the only god.”

Since the ancient word theos (god) had such a broad meaning and since “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11), it was quite natural and appropriate for the Bible writers and the first Christian apologists to refer to the Son as theos.  However, for them, the Father remained the only true god.

Translations cause confusion

So the original text is clear.  All we have in the Greek Bible is the word theos.  Literally translated, Ignatius wrote that the Father is “the only true god” and the Son is “our god.” 

The confusion is caused by the translations.  Ancient words such as theos are translated as “god” or as “God.” It depends on the context. When modern translators think that the Almighty is intended, they translate theos as “God.” 

Most translators are Trinitarians which means that they assume that Jesus is equal to the Almighty Father; the Uncaused Cause of all things.  Therefore, they also translate theos as “God” when it refers to Jesus.  Consequently, the translations refer to Jesus as “God” rather than “god.”  That, however, does not accurately reflect the meaning of these ancient writers.

Furthermore, the phrase “only true God” is illogical, for the word “God” is not a category name.  It would have been more logical to translate this phrase as “the only true god.”  The same applies to John 17:3, where Jesus says that the Father is “the only true theos.”  This should be translated “only true god.”

Is Jesus God or god?

Whether we translate this as “God” or as “god” depends on what we mean by the word “God” and by whom we understand Jesus to be:

Ignatius described the Father as the only true god.  If he lived today, I think he would have preferred to translate his reference to Jesus as “god.”

However, Ignatius also described Jesus Christ in very elevated terms.  He is “the only-begotten Son.” This sets Him infinitely above all other beings, for it means that He came forth from the being of the Father.  He was begotten “before time began” and Himself was “being life.”  He described only the Father as “unbegotten.” In other words, only the Father exists without cause.  But still, Jesus is extremely close to the Father.  It is therefore quite possible to define the modern word “God” to include “the only-begotten Son.”  Then we can translate theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “God.”  That, however, would not make us Trinitarians, for the Father and the Son are not equal and they are not one Being.  

This is all very confusing and complex.  I guess my simple main point as follows: The fact that the translator capitalized the “G” cannot be used to support the Trinity doctrine for it is an interpretation that assumes the Trinity doctrine.  For a further explanation, see The Meanings of the Word THEOS.

Summary

The word “God” did not exist in the ancient Greek texts. We use the modern word “God” as the proper name for the One who exists without cause. 

The ancients did not have such a word.  They only had the word “god” (theos in Greek).  This word was used for a wide variety of beings, such as Moses, angels, Israel’s judges, appetite, those who receive the word of God, Satan and obviously also for the only true god. 

The ancient writers described Jesus as “our god” and the Father as “the only true god.”  The translators capitalize the “G,” when theos refers to Jesus, but that is an interpretation.  It is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of it.  It must not be used to support the Trinity doctrine.

Articles in this series

Christology of the persecuted church (First 300 years)
 – Introduction
 – Polycarp
 – Justin Martyr 
 – Ignatius of Antioch
 – Irenaeus
 – Tertullian – work in progress

 – Origen – work in progress
 – Jesus is our god. – Current Article
Fourth Century (State Church)
 – Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
 – The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
 – Fourth Century Arianism 

 – What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
 – Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
 – Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
Fifth Century
 – Fall of the Western Roman Empire
 – Why the Roman Empire fell 
 – The Fall of Rome proves Daniel as a true prophecy.
Middle Ages

 – The massacres of the Waldensians

Was the early church father Irenaeus (died 190) a Trinitarian?

This is the fifth article in the series that discusses the Christology of the main Christian authors of the first three centuries after Christ.  The previous articles were an Introduction, which defined the Trinity doctrine and gave an overview of the conceptual and historical development of it.  This was followed by articles discussing the views of Polycarp, Justin Martyr and Ignatius of Antioch.  This fifth article discusses the view of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (115-190).  He wrote as follows:

The Church … has received … this faith … (in)
One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in
One Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in
the Holy Spirit

To Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess; to him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all … (Against Heresies X.l)

Summary

Irenaeus identified the Father as the “Almighty,” in contrast to Jesus Christ.  That implies that the Son is not the Almighty. 

He believed that the Father is “the only and the true God.”  But he also referred to Christ Jesus as “our God.”  This is discussed in the article, Jesus is our god.  In summary, to capitalize the “G” of “god” is a translation that assumes and applies the Trinity doctrine and must not be used to support the Trinity doctrine.

Both the God of the Old Testament and Jesus are called “Lord.” This is also not proof that Jesus is God.  Firstly, the “one God” statements make a clear distinction between the “one God” (the Father) and the “one Lord, Jesus Christ.”  Secondly, the Greek word translated “lord” has a wide range of meanings.  It can simply be a respectful form of address to somebody in a more senior position but gods were also addressed as “lord.”

Every knee should bow” before Christ Jesus because that is “the will of the invisible Father;” not because Jesus is the Almighty.  That Jesus is worshiped because it is the Father’s will implies that the Son is subordinate to the Father.  Irenaeus explicitly refers to the Father as “the Head of Christ.”

These concepts will now be discussed in more detail.

Almighty

Irenaeus identified the Father as the “Almighty,” in contrast to Jesus Christ.  That implies that the Son is not the Almighty.  It is also not possible for two Almighty beings to exist, for then one would limit the might of the other.

Does the Nicene Creed declare the Son to be fully EQUAL to the Father?

SUMMARY

Analysts often claim that the Nicene Creed declares the Son to be equal with the Father.  However, the creed starts by saying,

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible
,”

This identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father in four ways:

      1. If the Father is the “one God” in which we believe, that excludes the Son.
      2. If the Father is Almighty, then the Son is not Almighty, for two Almighty beings is impossible.
      3. The Father/Son terminology also identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father.
      4. The Father is the “Maker of all things.” The creed later adds that all things were made BY the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things.  The Son is the Father’s hands through whom the Father made all things.

The creed makes a fundamental distinction between the Son and the created cosmos by saying that the Son is “begotten, not made;” even the “only Begotten.”   This also implies that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father, for He generated (begat) the Son. 

VERY GOD

The creed describes the “one Lord Jesus Christ” as “very God of very God,” but this is an inappropriate translation.  It should read “very god of very god,” for the word in the creed, that is translated “god,” is the common word for the immortal Greek gods.  In contrast, the word “God” is a modern invention, with a very different meaning.

HOMOOUSIOS

The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “of one substance with the Father.”  This implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but He subordinate to the Father in all other respects.  The Father is the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.

NO TRINITY DOCTRINE

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine, for it does not describe the Holy Spirit as God and there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The issue before the council was not the unity of the Godhead, but the nature of the Son, relative to the Father.

The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is homoousios. It means “of the same substance:” 

In the time before the creed was formulated, this term meant likeness of substance.

Later Catholic theologians interpreted it as ‘identically the same substance.’ In other words, that the Father and Son not only have similar substance; exactly the same substance of the Father is also the substance of the Son.  This implies His numerical identity with the Father. 

But this article proposes that the council did not agree on the meaning of Homoousios.  The emperor himself proposed the term Homoousios and applied pressure on the council to accept this term.  For this reason, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways.

TEXT OF THE NICENE CREED

The Nicene Creed, according to Wikipedia, reads as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, begotten of the Father
the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father,

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];

And in the Holy Ghost.

But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or
‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—
they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

IS THE SON SUBORDINATE?

Analysts often claim that this creed declares the Son to be equal with the Father.  In this section, that statement is evaluated and qualified.

The Nicene Creed starts by saying,

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible
,”

but later adds

And in one Lord Jesus Christ …
very God of very God

Does this mean that the Son is EQUAL with the Father?

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN God and god

But first, it is important to note, for the discussion of these phrases, that the original language of the creed did not distinguish between upper and lower case letters.  Consequently, the word “God” could actually also be translated as “god.”  There is a huge difference between these two words:

God – “God” is a modern word.  We use it today as the proper name for the “unbegotten,” as the ancients used to say; that is, the One who exists without cause.  The creed (and the New Testament) does not contain any one word that is exactly equivalent to the modern word “God.” 

god – The word which the creed uses is the common title for a Greek god (theos) and simply means a supernatural, immortal being, like the “gods” of the Greek pantheon.  It should be translated as “god,” unless the context indicates or implies that the Unbegotten is intended.

For a further discussion of the words “God” and “god,” see the articles Ignatius of Antioch or Arianism or THEOS.  With this information, the wording of the creed is discussed below:

THE ALMIGHTY FATHER

The creed identifies the Father as “Almighty.” This means that ONLY the Father is “Almighty,” for two “Almighty” beings is impossible.  This also means that the Son is not “Almighty.

The creed also says that “we believe in one god, the father.” (For the reasons above, to more accurately reflect the meaning of the text, capital letters have been converted into small caps.)  That statement means that we do not believe in many gods, but in only one god, and that is the One to whom Jesus referred as “Father.”  It excludes the Son as the “one god” in which we believe.  They are both gods, but only the Father is “Almighty.”  

The Father is the “Maker of all things visible and invisible.”  The New Testament often states that God created all things THROUGH the Son (John 1:3; Col. 1:16; Hebr. 1:2; “by” in 1 Cor. 8:6 – NASB).  The creed similarly says that all things were made BY the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things.  The Son is the Father’s hands through whom the Father made all things.

THE ONLY-BEGOTTEN SON

The Lord Jesus Christ is called “the Son of God” while the Almighty is His “Father.”  On their own, the terms “Son” and “Father,” imply that the Lord Jesus Christ is SUBORDINATE to the Father.

To say that the Son is “very god of very god” (or “true god of true god” in other translations) merely says that both the Father and the Son truly are supernatural, immortal beings.  It is a MUCH LOWER CLAIM that being the Almighty.  It does not even mean that they are the only gods.  Jesus even referred to humans, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods” (same word – John 10:34-35).  To translate this as “true God of true God” misrepresents the meaning of the creed, for only the Almighty qualifies to be “God” in modern nomenclature.

The creed also says that the Son is “begotten, not made.”  The word “of,” in the phrase, “very god of very god,” is related to this concept.  This also implies that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father, for He generated (begat) the Son. 

The creed adds that the Son is the “only Begotten.”  In other words, no other being was “begotten” by the Father.  This implies a fundamental difference between the Son and “all things.”  All things were “made,” according to the Nicene Creed, but only the Son was “begotten.”

The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “being of one substance with the Father.”  This is probably derived from the concept that He is begotten, for the Bible does not discuss the substance of the Father or of the Son. 

MADE OUT OF NOTHING

The creed condemns all who say that “He was made out of nothing.”  Since He was begotten, one could perhaps argue that He was made of the substance of the Father.  However, such arguments are dangerous because the Bible says nothing about this and this is not something which humans are able to understand.

Nevertheless, the implication of the Nicene Council is that all other things were made out of nothing.  However, Einstein taught us that things cannot be made out of noting (E=mc2, where E stands for Energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light).  The Father, therefore, did not use other materials to make “all things.”  Rather, all things are brought forth from His own being. He provided from His own being the energy which He converted into the material from which He made all things.  The claim that the Son is the only-begotten, is humanly incomprehensible but sets the Son apart from all other things.

CONCLUSION

On the one hand, the creed identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father:

      1. We believe is only “one god; the Father.”
      2. Only the Father is “Almighty.”
      3. The Lord Jesus is called “Son;” in contrast to the Father.
      4. The Son has been “begotten“ by (generated by) the Father.
      5. The Father made all things through the Son.

On the other hand, the Son is “of one substance with the Father,” which implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but He subordinate to the Father in all other respects.  Also bear in mind that this concept, that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, is an interpretation, of the word “begotten,” and is not directly stated as such in the Bible.

We can compare the Father and the Son to a human father and son, who are of the same substance, and say that the human son is subordinate to the human father, but this comparison breaks down, for the Father did not only generate the Son: The Father is also the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.

NO TRINITY IN THE NICENE CREED

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine.  This statement is justified as follows: 

Firstly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Holy Spirit is a separate Person, equal with the Father and the Son, but the Nicene Creed merely and very briefly mentions the Holy Spirit together with the Son and the Father, to indicate a belief in the Triad (three Persons) of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  It says nothing about the Holy Ghost being “true God” or being of the same substance.

Secondly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being, but there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed. 

The Athanasian Creed, formulated more than a century later, expresses the trinity concept explicitly, including with the phrase, “the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity:”

Note: Most often today, we use the word “Trinity” as a SINGULAR REFERRING TERM (meaning that it refers to a single being), for, in the Trinity doctrine, God is One Being, consisting of three Persons.  The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed and in Tertullian and in many other church fathers, in contrast, is actually a PLURAL REFERRING TERM, meaning that it refers to a group of three distinct Beings.  It is, rather, the word “Unity,” in the Athanasian Creed that emphasizes their One-ness.  The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed should, therefore, be rendered with a lower case “t.”

Thirdly, as Millard J. Erickson stated, the issue before the council, it is virtually universally agreed, was not the unity of the Godhead but rather the coeternity of the Son with the Father, and his full divinity, as contrasted with the creaturehood that the Arians attributed to him (God in Three Persons, p82-85).

DOES HOMOOUSIOS MEAN ONE BEING?

This section is adapted from Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85).

The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is homoousios (consubstantial in Latin). It means “of the same substance” or “of one being.”  The Nicene Creed uses this term to say that the Son is “of one substance” or “of one being” with the Father, namely that He was begotten “from the substance of the Father.”  This is often understood to mean that the Son is fully equal to the Father.  But what did it actually mean to the council? Three possibilities are considered:

SAME TYPE OF SUBSTANCE

If this was the meaning, then the creed says that the Son is utterly unlike creatures in substance, but it does not mean that they share the same substance (numerically the same substance), as required by the Trinity doctrine.  This view is supported by the following:

Firstly, before Nicaea, homoousios meant likeness of substance. This is how Origen and his followers used the term. In that sense, it could signify the kind of substance or stuff common to several individuals of a class.  We could say, for example, that all humans consist of the same substance.

Secondly, if it was used to mean numerical identity of substance, the Eusebians would have identified it as Sabellianism and would have resisted it vigorously. (Sabellianism is the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are THREE DIFFERENT MODES or aspects of God.)

Thirdly, the great issue at Nicaea was the SON’S FULL DIVINITY and not the unity of the Godhead.  The word Homoousios, therefore, would have been understood to signify the Son’s full divinity; His total likeness in substance to the Father and total unlikeness to creatures in substance.

Lastly, later on—after the numerical identity of substance became a standard part of Christology—some orthodox theologians still used the word homoousios in the sense of the same type of substance.

NUMERICALLY (EXACTLY) THE SAME SUBSTANCE

For later Catholic theologians, Homoousios meant ‘identically the same substance’:

The Cappadocian Fathers “made extensive use of the formula “one substance (ousia) in three persons (hypostaseis)” (McGrath, Alister (1998), Historical Theology). 

In other words, the Father and Son not only have a similar substance; exactly the same substance of the Father is also the substance of the Son.  This implies His numerical identity with the Father.  (That they are the same being.)  Arguments that are used for this view include the following:

(a) It would seem to be unnatural” for monotheists to admit two divine ousiai (substances).

(b) Origen used the word to mean SIMILAR SUBSTANCE, but for Origen, the Son was INFERIOR to the Father, (The Triune God, Edmund J. Fortman, p 66-70).  Since the intent of the council was to affirm the Son’s equality with the Father, would they use the word Homoousios with the meaning which Origen attached to it?

(c) If Hosius of Cordova influenced the adoption of the term, would he have failed to indicate to the Nicene Fathers that for him and the West it signified ‘identity of substance’?

In recent years there is a growing tendency to reject the numerical identity view. 

NO AGREEMENT

As discussed in another article, the emperor himself proposed the term Homoousios and exerted pressure on the council to accept the term.  Since there were three different factions at the meeting with three different views, and because of the pressure applied by the emperor, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways, depending on their theological tendencies (e.g. Marcellan neo-monarchianism or Eusebian subordinationism).  In other words, THE COUNCIL DID NOT AGREE ON THE MEANING OF HOMOOUSIOS.

CONDEMNATIONS

The creed describes certain people that “are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  However, to condemn people with different views is inconsistent with the Christian principles of love and humility.  This is made worse by the fact that the nature of Christ is a humanly incomprehensible subject, and not explicitly taught in the Bible.

Furthermore, people are saved by their faith (trust) in God; not by believing the right doctrines.  The creed makes itself a criterion for the true faith.  All that the Bible requires from believers is stated in John’s summary of his gospel:

These have been written so that you may believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God
;
and that believing you may have life in His name

(John 20:31).

It always amazes me how important Christology became in the fourth century.  Why did the church, in the fourth century, elevate the nature of Christ to be the most important doctrine?  I would like to venture that, during the first 300 years, the enemy of the faith attacked the church from outside, through persecution.  After the church has been legalized in 313, the enemy entered the church.  It was now inside the church and saw in this topic fertile ground for causing division in the church.  He still today uses this topic very effectively for that purpose.

CATHOLIC CHURCH

The condemnations in the creed refer to “the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  The word “catholic,” here, simply means ‘universal’.  During the 11th century, the East-West schism permanently divided Church. That schism resulted from a dispute on whether Constantinople or Rome held jurisdiction over the church in Sicily, followed by mutual ex-communications in 1054.  Since that event, the Western (Latin) branch of Christianity has since become known as the Catholic Church, while the Eastern (Greek) branch is called the Orthodox Church.  In this way, “Catholic Church” became the name of one particular denomination.  When used as such, the “c” in both ‘catholic’ and “church’ are capitalized; Catholic Church.

 

John 1:1, John 1:18 in John 20:28 call Jesus God, but only the Father is God.

Purpose

Gospel of JohnThe purpose of this article, and the ones following after it, is to determine whether Jesus is God according to John’s gospel, or whether only the Father is God.  The ultimate purpose is particularly to determine what John meant when he wrote that “the Word was theos (god)” in John 1:1c.  As discussed in the article theos, the word Greek theos has various different meanings.  John 1:1c may, for instance, be translated as:

“The Word was God” (definite) or
“The Word was a god” (indefinite) or
“The Word was like God” (qualitative).

Which of these is the intended meaning should also be the picture of Jesus we find by reading the entire gospel.  To prepare these articles, the gospel was read carefully and all relevant statements were selected and categorized.

Summary

Is Jesus called God in John’s gospel?

The title theos (usually translated “God” or “god”) appears more than 100 times in John’s gospel:

In most instances it is not clear whether it refers to the Father or to the Son, for instance: “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John” (1:6).

In ten instances it is clear that theos refers to the Father exclusively, for instance, “the Word (Jesus) was with God” (1:1b).  God has never been seen (1:18), while Jesus was seen.  The Father is even called “the one and only God” (5:44; 17:3) and Jesus referred to Him as “My God and your God” (20:17).

Three verses are sometimes used to argue that Jesus is called “God:”

John 1:1c

John 1:1c does not use theos in a definite sense, and therefore may not be translated “the Word was God.”  It is used in a qualitative sense, and therefore may be translated, “the Word was like God.”  Or, using the phraseology from Philippians 2, the Word “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil. 2:6).  But, as also argued in the article Jesus in Philippians 2, if Jesus “existed in the form of God” and if He had “equality with God,” then He is still distinct from God.

John 1:18

John 1:18 calls Jesus “the only begotten theos,” but only in some of the ancient manuscripts.  In the manuscript tradition with the widest geographical distribution, He is called “the only begotten huios” (son).  Therefore, the KJV translates this phrase as “the only begotten Son.”  John originally wrote either theos (god) or huios (son), but somebody corrupted the text either on purpose or by accident, and textual critics are not sure what John actually originally wrote.

John 20:28

John 20:28 records Thomas, when he saw the resurrected Jesus for the first time, as saying “my Lord and my God.”  This happened just after Jesus completed his work on earth and just before the apostle took the work forward in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Thomas could not have referred to Jesus as “God,” for the following reasons:

1. Jesus never taught the disciples that He is God.  Jesus consistently made a distinction between Himself and God.

2. When Thomas said these words, the apostles did not believe that Jesus is God.  For example, the two disciples walking to Emmaus spoke of Him as “a prophet” and said “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).

3. Afterwards, as recorded in the book of Acts, the disciples did not teach that Jesus is God.

Therefore, if Thomas did apply the title theos to Jesus, it could have been in the sense of God’s representative.  The Bible does use theos sometimes in that sense.  But Thomas actually said ho theos.  This title is used for the Father only, and implies that when Thomas said “my God,” he actually referred to the Father.

Conclusion

The evidence is clear that Jesus is not called God in John’s gospel.  Only the Father is God.  However, the view that Jesus is God does not rely on the argument that He is called God.  It is based on other facts, such as that He is worshiped equal to God.  These matters are discussed in the articles that will follow after this one.

John’s Gospel

Critical scholars believe that John’s gospel was written by a number of writers over a period of time.  But the gospel expresses a coherent and consistent view of God and Jesus.  It does not seem to be written by more than one person.

John’s gospel was written much later than the other (synoptic) gospels.  It was written in the eighties or nineties, and has a much higher Christology (view of Christ) than the other gospels.  Some interpreters understand John’s gospel as saying that Jesus existed before His conception in Mary’s womb, and even that Jesus is God Himself.  The other gospels do not have such a high view of Jesus.  In the other gospels Jesus seems to be just a man; an anointed and sanctified man, but still only a man.  Competing views are therefore expressed, namely:

1.  John contradicts the first three gospels. OR

2.  John does not contradict the other gospels, for Jesus is God the Son also in Matthew, Mark and Luke; as divine as the Father is. OR

3. John does not contradict the other gospels, for John’s gospel is generally misunderstood, and even in John’s gospel Jesus is merely a man; God’s Messiah; and not God.

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from the NASB of John’s gospel.

Jesus is distinct from God.

Rather than referring to Jesus as God, John’s gospel reserves the title “God” for the Father.  The following phrases make a distinction between Jesus and God:

The Word (Jesus) was with God” (1:1b).

No one has seen God at any time” (1:18).  (Jesus was seen.)

God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (3:16-17)

You do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God” (5:44).

This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (6:29).

You are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God” (8:40).

I proceeded forth and have come from God“ (8:42).

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me” (14:1-2).

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (17:3).

John 17:3

Most of these quote Jesus’ words, making a distinction between Himself and God.  Two of these quotes refer to “the only true God” (17:3; cf. 5:44).  God is invisible (1:18), sent His Son (3:16-17; 6:29; 8:42; 17:3) and taught Jesus the truth (8:40).  His disciples, listening to these words, would not get the idea that Jesus is God.  To the contrary, in 8:40 Jesus refers to himself as “a man.”  Therefore, why would Thomas refer to Jesus as “my God” in John 20:28?  Where did he get the idea that Jesus is God?

The Father is God.

Jesus refers most often to “God” as the “Father.” It is important to understand that in John’s gospel, and in the entire New Testament, the title “God” is a synonym for “the Father,” for instance:

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places” (14:1-2).

Jesus said to Mary, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God” (20:17).

If only the Father is God, then it obviously follows that the Son is not called God.  But there are some Trinitarians that view the Father and Son to be a single self, and in Modalism the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are simply three modes of the same single divine Being.  Contrary to these views, the following shows that Jesus is distinct from the Father:

Thinking about His approaching death, Jesus said, “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour” (12:27).
(In Gethsemane He similarly prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Mt. 26:39).  This shows that the Father and Jesus two separate wills.)

If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (14:28; cf. 10:29).

The Father and the Son are therefore distinct Beings.  And, in the way that the New Testament uses the title “God,” only the Father is God

The Father is God for Jesus.

The following verse even identifies the Father as Jesus’ God:

Jesus said to Mary, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God” (20:17).

John, who also wrote the Revelation, quotes Jesus saying, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God” (Rev. 3:12; cf. 3:13).

Conclusion

The title theos (usually translated God or god) appears more than 100 times in John:

In most instances it is not clear whether it refers to the Father or to the Son, for instance: “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John” (1:6).

Above ten instances are mentioned where theos refers to the Father only.

On the other hand, there are three instances (1:1, 18 and 20:28) where theos perhaps refers to Jesus.  Separate articles have been placed on this website for each of these verses.  Below these articles are summarized:

John 1:1c

John 1:1This is usually translated “the Word was God.”  A series of articles on this website addresses the translation of John 1:1c.  One article evaluates the translation “The Word was God” and another the translation “The Word was a god.”  In these articles it is shown that neither of these translations are appropriate because the word theos is used in a qualitative sense in that phrase, as grammarians agree.  It should rather be translated as “the Word was like God.”

Both John 1:1 and Philippians 2 describe Jesus before He became a human being.  The article Jesus in Philippians 2 proposed that “the Word was theos” can be understood as equivalent to the statements in Philippians 2 that Jesus “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” and “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow” (Phil. 2:6, 10).  But, as also argued in that article, if Jesus “existed in the form of God” and if He had “equality with God,” then He is still distinct from God.

John 1:18

This verse is discussed in the article: John 1:18. In the NASB, this verse reads,

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”

The word “God” appears twice in this verse.  The first “God” refers to the Father, who is described as invisible.  Since God is invisible, the conclusion can be that Jesus is distinct from God.

The second “God” in 1:18 refers to Jesus, but appears only in some translations.  Twelve of the 27 translation of this verse, as listed by BibleHub, describe Jesus as God in this verse.  The other (mostly older) translations, use a different source text, which actually has the widest geographical distribution, and which describes Jesus as “the only begotten Son.”  John originally wrote either theos (god) or huios (son), but somebody corrupted the text either on purpose or by accident.  It is the task of the textual critic to determine which was the original wording.  As discussed in the article Is Jesus God in John 1:18? neither the external or internal evidence is conclusive.  Because of this uncertainty, this verse should not be used as evidence that Jesus is called God.

John 20:28

This verse is discussed in the article on John 20:28.  Thomas would not believe the reports that Jesus was raised from death, but when He saw Jesus in person, a few days later, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (20:28)!  Jesus did not reprove Thomas.

For some this provides the best evidence that Jesus is God.  It is said that Jesus is here without doubt called “God.”  However, strong circumstantial evidence exists that Thomas could not have referred to Jesus as God:

1. Jesus did not teach the disciples that He is God.  Jesus never used the term θεός (theos = god) for Himself, but described Himself as the Christ and as the Son of God.  As discussed above, Jesus consistently made a distinction between Himself and God.  John summarized the main thesis of his book as follows:

These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

2. The events in the immediate context of John 20:28 show that the disciples did not believe that Jesus is God.  The two disciples walking to Emmaus demonstrate the thoughts of Jesus’ followers at that time.  Speaking to the resurrected Christ, whom they mistook as just a traveler, they described Jesus as “a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God…and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).

3. The events in the book of Acts began a few weeks after Jesus appeared to Thomas.  If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their message in Acts, but such a statement is never even once found in Acts.

4. Paul was given the task of interpreting the dramatic Christ-events and to teach the church through his letters.  He did not teach that Jesus is God, but wrote the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).   According to some translations of Romans 9:5, Paul referred to Jesus as God, but the article on Romans 9:5 shows that it is all a matter of punctuation, and all punctuation in the Bible is interpretation.

The article on John 20:28 analyses possible interpretations of Thomas’ exclamation.  Since the word theos has many different meanings, Thomas might have described Jesus as God-like or as mandated by God to speak for Him.  These are valid alternative meanings of the word theos.  See the article THEOS.  Another option is that Thomas did not address Jesus, but that He addressed the Father as “my God.”  Since Thomas did not merely say theos, but ho theos, this is quite possible.

But which of these is what Thomas actually meant is not important.  What is important is that the immediate and wider context prevents us from understanding John 20:28 as saying that Jesus is God.

Conclusion

The evidence is clear that Jesus is not called God in John’s gospel.  Only the Father is God.  However, the view that Jesus is God does not rely on the argument that He is called God.  It is based on other facts, such as:

He is worshiped equal to God.
The Jews thought that Jesus “was … making Himself equal with God” (5:18).
Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58), “I and the Father are one” (10:30) and “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9).

These matters are discussed in the articles that will follow after this one.

NEXT:  Did Jesus claim to be God?